Non-insulated, Non-aerated, Two-Tone Bucket… or else just “Minnows: An Essay”

Non-insulated, Non-aerated, Two-tone Bucket

When you’re a little girl from a financially strapped family and you live in Northern Wisconsin, that means you also “summer” in Northern Wisconsin. Of course, we never used the word “summer” as an action. That’s a verb only rich people or New England poets put to use.

Our summer, fall, winter, and spring home was three hours south of Canada, if you’d drive the Minnesotan North Shore route of Lake Superior. Three hours if you drove it and your dad didn’t get too pissed off to “turn the Goddamn van around so everyone can fend for their Goddamn selves with their own Goddamn tents out in the Goddamn yard ‘cause no one knows a Goddamn thing about camping,” which is what happened most times. In the mid Eighties, and even now, access to computers, cable, shopping malls, fast food, and pop culture was very limited in our region, and most people still prefer it that way. The area is heavily wooded, and few cars go by. God’s Country people called it, which was confusing because they also referred to Burnett County as Burnout County. Maybe it was just a nice place to give up.

With not much to distract us from our own inventions, my younger brother and I became pretty scrappy thinkers and doers, continuously coming up with entrepreneurial endeavors such as a lemonade stand for the cabin-goers, and bake sales marketed solely to our parents, all failing due to lack of interest. We were referred to only in duet form: “Miki and Mikey,” the scrawny, wonder duo always in the dirt or in the lake, equal amounts of feuding or getting along, when Mikey was willing to put up with my bossiness. Often, we were mistaken for twins, but that was because my brother was tall for his age, and neither of us spoke much to show that I was slightly older and knew a few more words than he did. Both of us had hair on the red spectrum, and skin that was either George Hamilton tanned like mine, or sun-burnt and extremely freckled like Mikey’s, giving us a supernatural, grubby, orange aura when we stood together, which we always did. People came into our yard sometimes to fill the propane tank or install a dishwasher that my

parents had saved up for five years to get, and we would stare at them eerily, frightening everyone with our Children of the Corn nature. We were more effective than the dogs.

One hot day in August, when Mikey was five and I had just turned seven, the noon sun heated the trees and we smelled warm pine needles, nuanced with fading skunk stench, the dogs and front of the house having been sprayed by one a couple weeks earlier. When there was no wind like this day, the skunk essence around your isolated house builds up walls, not a fence, but walls around your property, and the smell develops a weight to it. Visually, it would resemble a lowball of thick Scotch, and when you add a tiny bit of water to it, you can see the oils and tannins of the Scotch lighten and try to escape the glass, but failing, eventually sink to the bottom of the cup, enhancing the flavor, opening it up even more.* The August sun sinks the skunk smell right down onto your person, and it is heavy. We could have left, walked down to the lake, but we had committed ourselves to a new business venture of selling minnows by the dozen. Therefore, we stayed put, and listened past the fighting squirrels and chickadees and hollow, pileated woodpecker knockings for what could be our first sale.

What we were listening for, more specifically, were cars. Our house was secluded, far back into the woods, off a dirt road, so we never actually saw cars. We heard them, and we became experts at gaging what type of car it might be. We easily knew the sounds of the school bus, and the mail lady’s Buick Regal, and our mom’s Chevy Vega with missing muffler, and we knew how different cars sounded when driving on gravel, an additional clue they were getting closer. Today, we wanted to hear any vehicle that did not belong to someone we knew. If we were going to succeed in the minnow business, we couldn’t rely just on relatives and friends to support us. We needed strangers to show up, and strangers to give us money for our minnows. So we listened.

Normally, the sound of a strange vehicle’s wheels hitting our gravel road was not welcome. We were forest people, and didn’t speak to others well, with our painful bashfulness. Somebody was coming? What if they came up our driveway and needed something? What if they were wearing a tie? People who wore ties were not to be trusted.

My parents were kind, independent, and forward-thinking people, but they still didn’t trust a tie. A tie might be selling something or trying to assess your property that you had no plans of selling, so you didn’t need the value to go up anymore. The few times that a tie- wearer did come to the house while Mikey and I were there alone, we let the dogs keep barking and hid inside until they drove away. But today, a stranger’s car, even a tie- wearer’s, was the sound we hoped for, because by late August, any shy school kid’s boredom and subsequent entrepreneurial creativity would trump bashfulness.

We were alone again this day. There may have been an adult napping inside, or maybe one a quarter mile away down at the lake working on the pontoon, but nobody was outside in our immediate vicinity. Nobody worried about us. We were the youngest of six kids and the worry had all been used up on the other four. Our much older brothers and sisters were already out living on their own, in jail, or, as was the case with our high school age brother, Mark, out working a summer job filling holes for the roads department, which is similar to being in jail, but you have to bring your own sandwich.

So we waited. We drew patterns in the dirt with sticks out in front of our house where my folks had cleared enough trees when building their home to suggest a yard. We drank various powder-mix drinks like Tang and Nestea that we could hurry up and prepare inside and get back outside before we might miss anything. Patience and boredom. Repeat. We were sunburnt from two days of standing outside, hoping. And then, a very distant rumble at least a couple miles off. Concentrate, and listen. We heard it slow down and turn onto Norman’s Landing Road, instead of continuing on and away from us around the lake. This meant it was a mile and a half away, and would be passing by the road to our house, so there was hope. The sound slowly crescendoed.

It wasn’t the mail lady’s Buick or my mom’s Vega. This was a deep, masculine rumble, but not a propane truck or logging truck professional rumble. This was an exhaust-system- failing, manual-shift rumble like our oldest and drunkest brother’s truck, but it wasn’t his either. It slowed down to an idling noise just about where our road started, a half mile away, where there were a small group of mailboxes full of shot gun holes, ours included.

This vehicle was sitting there, thinking, beyond our vision. Anticipation. Most likely, it would continue onward upon the quarter mile patch of tar just past the mailboxes, before hitting a different patch of gravel, that was not our gravel, but that it would have to drive over because most of the roads were patchworks of asphalt and dirt and gravel, polka dotted with early falling leaves and roadkill. Still, we listened like hyper chihuahuas in the calm before a barking fit.

Finally came the noise we had waited to hear since catching our first minnow batch days ago. The rumble turned onto our gravel road! We could have peed our pants waiting to see if it would also turn up our driveway. Keep listening. We would know, because a softer sound would issue from its wheels. The first couple yards of our driveway were thick sand, like beach sand. I’d sometimes go down there to bury my feet when the sun had warmed it up. The driveway then turned into hard packed, pebbled dirt. These were the surfaces over which the rumble was driving. Don’t pee. The truck would have to go up the hill of our driveway, and round a small bend before we could actually see it. We took this time to look professional by panicking and grabbing a chair to set next to us in the sun. Real businesses had chairs.

Coming up our dirt driveway, presenting itself in front of our house, where Mikey and I stood, next to the chair and the hot, hot minnow bucket, was a rusted-out pick up. I’m not sure what brand of truck. The pieces of it came from a variety of other trucks, like a metal quilt. A grubby, middle-aged, bearded man hopped out, into a cloud of dust, confused.

“I saw a sign for minnows.”

Here was a real stranger who read “MINOWS” and its adjacent arrow scrawled in permanent marker on a piece of scrap plywood we had hauled on our wagon a half mile down to the end of the gravel road and leaned up against our rusty mailbox, well out of sight from where we stood to do business, separated from us by groves of oak and rows of Norway pine. Advertising and location. We nailed it. The sign did its job. This kind man–in fact, all mankind–did need minnows, and we could provide them.

“Is this the right place for minnows?” He glanced at our bucket in the sun.

My brother and I nodded, our mouths falling open, but no sound coming out. We nodded more, and holding the yellow, frayed, moldy rope we had used to toss it in the murky water, we held up the minnow bucket to show the stranger we had made a big catch. The bucket swung a little–the plastic, non-insulated bucket with a bright orange bottom and white top with smaller circular lid and annoying little tab you had to push inward to get it to open. The bucket, that if my dad would have known we were using to catch minnows down in the swamp, would have invoked from him a short, passionate speech about how “nobody Goddamn asks to use his Goddamn things, and they all get broken, Goddamnit.” We didn’t think of this in our new adventure with the full sun beating down on us and our minnows in their non-insulated, non-aerated, two-tone bucket.

“What kind you selling?”

“Fatheads,” my brother and I said in unison. Creepy, orange twins again, Mikey becoming the redder one. He blushed easily. Plus, his sunburn was getting worse, adding brightness to his skin, but bleaching his hair to a pale orange that matched his eyebrows.

“Fatheads, huh?”

More nodding. Mikey and I assumed these were the fathead species of minnow, because they were swelled up around the head and behind it.** The dirty-fingered man opened up the warm bucket lid like a professional, and a rotten, tar pit smell wafted out, the minnows bloated with heat and death and stink. They were not necessarily fatheads, but just resembled them in their dying process, no longer useful as bait.

“Oh, huh. How much?” “A dollar a dozen.”

“I’ll take a dozen then.”

Mikey and I looked at each other, unsteadily. Our first sale. The first dollar we made that our dad didn’t give us. We would be okay in the world. We could do business. We would survive life, and at least we could dream of prospering, but survival was first. We stared at the man, unsure of the next step, but the nice stranger knew how it went. He had been us once.

“You got a scoop or something?”

He asked as he opened his own empty styrofoam bucket. Then we stared at him, and then we stared at each other, and then we stared at the little fish bodies floating in our two-tone bucket, and finally, we used our hands to cup and scoop out a dozen useless minnows into his container. He grabbed the garden hose and sprayed some water into his new purchase. Mikey and I watched proudly as one minnow came back to life, swimming the circumference of the styrofoam, confused and feisty.


* “…lowball glass, or rocks glass is a short tumbler used for serving an alcoholic beverage, such as whisky, with ice cubes…” -Wikipedia

** “Fathead minnows are characterized by deep, compressed bodies, typically five to eight centimeters in length, and a short head that is dorsally flattened with a blunt snout, round lateral eyes, and terminal, upturned mouth.” They belong to the Pimephales genus of the cyprinid family. -Encyclopedia of Life (

Published in: on September 15, 2016 at 6:44 pm  Leave a Comment  

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